Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

St Winefride

Today is the feast day of St Winefride.

St Winefride (or St. Gwenfrewi as she was known in Wales) was a seventh century saint The daughter of a Welsh prince she had taken a vow of celibacy. A young nobleman called Caradoc refused to accept her vows and pursued her. She fled but he caught up with her and cut her head off with his sword. St Winefride's head then rolled to a spot near her church where her uncle, St Beuno, was at prayer. A spring gushed forth from this spot while nearby Caradoc fell to the ground which opened and swallowed him. St Beuno replaced the girl's head on her shoulders and she lived. She died fifteen years later, c.660, as the Abbess of a nunnery in Gwytherin.

Her main devotional site is at the eponymous Holywell in Flintshire. Almost alone amongst English and Welsh shrines it remained a place of pilgrimage after the reformation. Thus King James II and Queen Maria Beatice were able to follow in the footsteps of King Henry V to pray at the well. On the eve of the Gunpowder Plot a group of Catholics led by Fr Henry Garnet S.J. were able to go there on pilgrimage. It remained a place of pilgrimage throughout the recusant period

The present shrine chapel was built by the great Lady Margaret Beaufort at the end of the fifteenth century.

St Winefride's Well

Image from Wikipedia

Holywell is a remarkable and precious survival of medieval piety into the post-reformation and modern eras.

The illustrated website of the shrine is here
and there is a Wikipedia article about it here, again with illustrations.

I visited Holywell as a seven year old and, unfortunately do not recall much about it, other than being in the rather dark and dank atmosphere around the pool at the well-head. It is a place I would very much like to go back and visit again.

In 1138 St Winefride's bones were taken from Gwytherin to the abbey of SS Peter and Paul at Shrewsbury. The first of Ellis Peters' Br Cadfael novels A Morbid Taste for Bones is written around this. Regrettably perhaps Shrewsbury Abbey is now better known for the fictional Cadfael than for St Winefride. The novels are pleasant enough, but historically leave something to be desired. Ellis Peters may have written good detective stories, but I do n't think she was that well informed about the medieval Church.

I gather from a website that there is also a well named after St Winefride in the hamlet of Woolston near Oswestry in Shropshire. It is thought that on the way to Shrewsbury Winefride's body was laid here overnight and a spring sprang up out of the ground. The water is supposed to have healing powers and be good at healing bruises, wounds and broken bones. The well is covered by a fifteenth century half-timbered cottage. The water flows through a series of stone troughs and into a large pond, which then flows into a stream. The cottage is in a quiet, peaceful setting in the middle of the countryside, and is maintained by the Landmark Trust.

There is also another place where her body was laid and a spring sprang up. Holywell farm midway between Tattenhall and Clutton, Cheshire. There is a spring in the garden of this non working farm which supplies two houses with their drinking water.

Remains of St Winefride's shrine still exist in the abbey church at Shrewsbury, of which the nave, west tower and north porch are medieval; the truncated transepts and sanctuary are nineteenth century, the work of J.L. Pearson. In the abbey are surviving medieval depictions of SS Winefride and Beuno.


Shrewsbury Abbey today

A reconstruction of Shrewsbury abbey in the late middle ages

Image from Britannia.com

This slightly awkward reconstruction gives some idea of the possible appearance of the abbey on the eve of the dissolution.

1 comment:

Sir Watkin said...

Gwenfrewi as she was known in Wales

Also "Gwenffrwd"

Almost alone amongst English and Welsh shrines it remained a place of pilgrimage after the reformation

Many Welsh holy sites remained places of pilgrimage until the late eighteenth century, when the spread of protestant nonconformity killed off the folk Catholicism that had proved surprisingly resilient (though actual recusancy was uncommon).

Even though the actual shrines had long been destroyed people continued to visit their sites. One suspects that the clergy, tho' officially disapproving, turned a blind eye because their churches needed the money that came from the pilgrims' offerings!

Thus in a Welsh context S. Winifred's Well, is exceptional rather for its wide renown and the numbers that went there, than for the mere fact that it remained a place of pilgrimage.